Nikon Coolpix A Review
Usability - How easy is it to use?
The Nikon Coolpix A is rather boxy. Its rectangular shape hides a large APS-C sensor which is quite remarkable for a compact camera. It does not have much of a grip, only a vertical protrusion at the front. Its design however requires two-handed operation which means that it is held securely most of the time. Still, using some kind of strap is recommended. Nikon provides a standard neck-strap but a wrist-strap is equally usable.
The camera is powered on by a spring-loaded switch around the shutter-release. Using it is extremely easy and so is turning the camera on accidentally since the switch gives almost no resistance. The shutter-release is a little soft with a distinct halfway point, thus minimizing accidental shots.
After powering on the camera, while the lens extends, the mode-dial which is located on the top-plate should be set to the desired exposure-mode. This mode-dial has the traditional PASM modes, two custom User modes, a position to access all Scene modes and an Auto mode.
Note that there is NO movie-mode, nor is there a Video-Record button. Instead, Nikon decided to make video a release-mode which makes plenty of sense and lets it work independently of the mode-dial. Just like a regular Video mode, this lets the camera know when it should be ready to film.
The back of the camera has buttons on either side of the LCD and a small thumb-rest. On the left is a column of four vertical buttons. The top two, to select EC and ISO respectively, are used in conjunction with the upper dial. This is the primary reason that two hands are needed to operate the Coolpix A. With your hand optimally placed, your thumb should be over the EC and ISO buttons and your index finger touching focus-ring. MF becomes easy this way.
All exposure parameters are selectable in 1/3 EV increments. In Auto mode, there is a manually selectable Auto ISO option which automatically selects an ISO sensitivity. In other modes, ISO is manual except when an option lets the camera override ISO up to a maximum sensitivity to preserve a minimum shutter-speed. EC can be set ±5 EV in PASM modes but changes are unfortunately not shown on the LCD.
The two lower buttons on the left are for magnifying the image. This helps tremendously with focusing manually. Otherwise, it is difficult to judge precise focus on the LCD. Note that this function also works when autofocus is enabled to confirm that focus was correctly achieved.
To the right of the LCD are four buttons plus a rotating 4-way controller with central OK button. Play and Menu work exactly as expected. Delete does the obvious in Playback mode and nothing in Capture mode. The Info button brings up an interactive status display. Since this camera has no other status display, we recommend checking it each time the camera is powered on.
The 4-way controller by default moves the focus-area. Pressing OK brings the area back to the center. If the area is not movable, such as when Face-Detect is active, these controls are not used. The circular ring of the 4-way controller serves as the second control-dial. It controls aperture in Manual exposure-mode. Most times, it stays unused.
A small slider switch on the side of the camera selects between normal AF, Macro AF and MF. Only when MF is selected then the fly-by-wire ring around the lens becomes active. When turning the focusing-ring, the distance advances smoothly and precisely. Results are immediately visible on the LCD with virtually no lag.
For a camera with plenty of buttons, a surprising amount of important features remain hidden. One Fn1 function button on the front can be customized and so can the ISO button but the latter is too useful to be re-assigned to anything else. This makes assigning the Fn1 a tough choice: Flash, Drive, Self-Timer, Flash Value Lock, AE/AF Lock, AE Lock, AE Lock Hold, AF Lock, AF-ON, EC or RAW. Not all of these make sense, however most are not available unless assigned here:
- Self-Timer: Toggles between Single-Shot and the configured Self-Timer.
- Flash Value Lock: Fires a test flash to compute how much illumination is needed and locks that value in.
- AE/AF, AE, AE Hold and AF Lock all do the obvious. Those who need any of these features must assign it.
- AF-On: Triggers autofocus and dissociates AF from the shutter-release.
The ISO button, also labelled Fn2, has a different set of possible assignments: ISO, WB, Qual, Metering, Active D-Lighting, Bracketing or LCD Brightness. The dilemma is choosing between ISO or WB or possibly Metering. The real issue is that assigning WB here is the only way to change white-balance live. Only a subset of options are available here though and fine-tuning is not possible without entering the menu system. There more ways to change WB exist:
- Interactive Status Screen: After pressing the [I] button, one can use the lower control-dial to choose WB. Pressing OK from there, lets one choose between the last chosen AWB, 6 presets or the last measured Custom WB. These are exactly the same choices offered by customizing Fn2 except that selection is done blindly.
- Camera Menu: An option in the camera menu is WB. Selecting it offers a linear menu with the same choices as above except that pressing the right direction of the 4-way controller brings up sub-options. For AWB, the options are Normal or Warm. For each Preset, it's WB Fine-Tuning. When selecting Fluorescent, there is an intermediate menu to select between 7 sub-types of lighting.
Using either of these interfaces, WB is chosen and adjusted without seeing its effect on the LCD screen. Once the selection is done, WB is approximated. Unfortunately, this is the only thing previewed as the display is not Exposure-Priority. Dialing EC for example does nothing and neither does changing exposure parameters.
The LCD screen is quite nice. It is sharp and shows fine details well. Its anti-reflective coating is excellent and generally remains visible in bright light. The refresh rate keeps up with motion well, except during continuous drive mode when it severely lags action, making it unsuitable for action photography.
Playback mode offers five image views. The ones which get cycled by the up and down directions of the 4-way controller have to be selected in the Playback menu. Since the default views shows very little shooting data, the Overview view needs to be enabled to see shutter-speed, aperture and ISO, plus a luminance histogram.
At the bottom of the camera, there is a metal tripod mount in the middle of the body. This gives good balance but is not ideal for making panorama photos because the point of rotation is not inline with the center of the lens. A plastic door next to the tripod mount gives access to the combined memory and battery compartment. Given it is so close, opening the door is impossible with the camera mounted on a tripod.
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